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Our new food critic dishes on why food matters to her

MONICA HERNDON | Times Helen Freund, Tampa Bay Times food critic, posed for a portrait on July 3, 2019 at The Library in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Published Jul. 15

On Mondays in New Orleans, we eat red beans and rice.

Okay, not everyone actually makes red beans every week. But the tradition is so deeply rooted in the city's history and culture that no one really questions it.

Red beans are what chefs served to first responders in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when the city was still recovering and a hot meal was a lifeline. When chef Leah Chase, the grand dame of Creole cuisine, died last month, red beans and fried chicken were served to the masses who came to pay their respects.

And I made a big pot of red beans and rice when I felt the first flickering of homesickness. It was a way for me to remember my home while welcoming the tradition into a new and exciting chapter of my life.

I had made the move from New Orleans, where I lived and worked for nearly seven years, to St. Petersburg to be the Tampa Bay Times' new food critic.

HAPPY HOUR WITH HELEN: You can meet our food critic at an upcoming event

Food has always been a big part of my life, from waiting tables and bartending in my early 20s to attending culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris to developing recipes for a cookbook and cooking at large-scale catering events in New York City.

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest on an island just north of Seattle in Puget Sound, where there was never a shortage of fresh seafood and great produce. With two working parents often too busy to worry about what to put on the table, cooking became a way for me to contribute to the family. I learned early on about the beauty of a home-cooked meal, the way it could convey love and provide sustenance.

But it wasn't until I took the job as restaurant critic for New Orleans' Gambit Weekly newspaper that I really started to understand how deeply intertwined food is with the collective identity of a city.

Food is the one thing that can instantly grab someone's attention, the one subject that will always launch a lively and passionate conversation. Ask someone in New Orleans who makes the best gumbo and you'll have folks arguing for days.

Food brings people together around a table regardless of their political leanings, socioeconomic status, gender or race. It is both a conduit for conversation and an opportunity to spark progress. The dinner table — both real and metaphorical — is worthy of exploration. Who gets a seat at it, what are we eating, and why?

Which brings me to what I'm doing here. As a restaurant critic and food writer, I will cover the Tampa Bay area's rich and expansive dining scene, the restaurants that populate it, the dishes we've come to love and the people making them. What is the equivalent of red beans in Tampa? I hope to keep asking that as I settle into my new home.

I come to the food beat from a traditional news reporting background. For years I covered breaking news, general assignment and criminal justice in both New York City and New Orleans.

Here at the Tampa Bay Times, I plan on combining food criticism with longer, untold stories of the area's food scene. I've always believed that writing about food should be treated like any other news beat. Get out into the community. Make sources. Ask the difficult questions. Tell the stories that otherwise might not get told. Always tell the truth.

Too often we get stuck on the plate and forget to look at the people and institutions beyond the kitchen doors. After all, food touches everything. Politics? Check. Business? You bet. Agriculture and the environment? Absolutely. In an area as diverse as Tampa Bay, I can already tell there will be plenty to unpack.

As a restaurant critic in New Orleans, I wasn't anonymous. I won't be here, either. I won't announce when I plan on coming to restaurants and will never make reservations under my own name. I want an experience that mirrors what the average diner would receive, without any special treatment.

I've already received dozens of emails from readers, colleagues, friends and total strangers about their favorite spots for everything from smoked mullet and fried grouper to Cuban sandwiches, deep-dish pizzas and poke. It has become abundantly clear that the Tampa Bay area is a place where people care deeply about the food they eat and where it comes from.

I've been here just shy of a month, but I'm already blown away by the wealth and diversity of international cuisine, fine-dining stalwarts dripping with history and the creative ways chefs are shaking up the dining game, from food trucks and popups to envelope-pushing tasting menus.

But to do my job well, I still need your help. I want to hear what restaurants excite you. Tell me about that dish you can't stop thinking about, or about that little place off the beaten path you still can't believe hasn't been discovered. Tell me what you wish to see more of, and what current dining trends irk you the most.

Dining can be both a solitary and social occasion, but I believe a meal is most memorable when shared with others. So please, pull up a chair and let's get to know each other a little better. Maybe one of these Mondays we'll sit down over some red beans.

Contact Helen Freund at hfreund@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8111. Follow @helenfreund.

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